No One Is Talking About This
  • March 28, 2022


  • Patricia Lockwood

    1No One Is Talking About This
    4Nervous System

    Lina Meruane

  • Judged by

    Fiona Dourif

Nervous System

I don’t like jazz or theatrical improv. There is probably a personality type at play here. Most people like extemporaneous art. It’s volatile! It’s unpredictable! It’s alive! To me, it always just seems unstructured. I want rhythm I can follow and a resolution at the end. I want the painstaking work it takes to make sure an audience is following along. Think of me as the little old lady who likes things to make sense.

Fiona Dourif (she/her) is an actress and producer living in Los Angeles. She was educated in Ireland and began her career producing History Channel documentaries. Recently, she is best known for her work in Tenet, the Child’s Play franchise, Stephen King’s The Stand, and various other television series. She loves old cars and good books. Known connections to this year’s contenders: “None.”

Both these novels felt like literary jazz. They ascended to magnificence, then flipped through discursive events that at times felt confusing, at others genius. It felt like the authors were writing whatever popped into their heads next. Both are extraordinary prose writers—I underlined sentences on almost every page, then stopped to ask myself, “Wait, what the hell is going on in this story?”

In No One Is Talking About This, we follow an internet influencer (is that her job?), a young woman who has been sucked into “the portal” and makes her living tweeting absurd nothings. She’s become famous for the tweet “can a dog be twins?”—which is stupid and Lockwood’s heavy-handed point about online discourse. The culture is absurd and the conversations discursive. Our main character remains nameless (because are we really ourselves on the internet anyway?) as the novel springs from disjointed thought to meme, like the most poetic Twitter board of all time. We get wind that she has a husband—he sometimes urges her to get off the internet, but otherwise remains in the background, along with the rest of flesh-and-blood humanity. The character travels, has conversations, gives talks, but as far as I could tell nothing actually happens. She is addicted to the portal and we are seated next to her at the slot machine. What witty absurdism will she think of next? Will this one be offensive or will the portal agree that it’s funny? What does she think at this moment about the moon or basketball, or capri pants that wrinkle at the crotch?

NOT my America, a perfectly nice woman posted, and for some reason she responded,

damn I agree… we didn’t trap George Washington’s head in a quarter for this.


A month after the election, she had been banned from the portal for posting a picture of herself crouched down and having her period on a small sculpture of twisted brown pipe cleaners that was labeled THE TREE OF LIBERTY. “Wouldn’t that mean that you were the tyrant in this scenario?” her husband asked, but she told him not to quibble.

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No One Is Talking About This remains this fucking hilarious throughout the book. I laughed out loud alone on my couch, scaring my cat multiple times. Lockwood is an impressive writer, but after 100 pages I was exhausted with the witticisms and understood her point: Online discourse is inane and soul-sucking. I also didn’t know where the hell I was in space and time.

Thankfully the book’s second half pivots to a story with actual relationships. Her sister is having a baby, but something is terribly wrong: The baby will be born severely disabled, if it lives at all. Our character is witness to a miracle and suddenly, without warning, she sees the world from a new perspective: Each moment is precious, every meal maybe the last, even gauche Disney World strikes her as bright and alive and important. Here the scenes still felt scattered, but suddenly I was following something that felt important. I started to care that our character cares about something! I began rooting for her and the rest of flesh-and-blood humanity. Let’s throw out our phones! Let’s look at the moon! I was impressed throughout the book, but at the very end, thankfully, Lockwood transcended prose and wrote a story I cared about.

* * *

In Lina Meruane’s Nervous System, the themes are entirely flesh and blood, often to an unforgiving degree. The book introduces a couple named El and Ella, which when written in the novel’s native Spanish is simply He and She. He is an anthropologist, she is an astronomy teacher struggling to write her dissertation. She wants to get sick in order to have time to write and then she starts to develop mysterious symptoms that can’t be diagnosed. For the first 30 pages I was astonished by this novel. It is steeped in fascinating imagery of our bodies’ frailty, and delivers gut punches worthy of a coma:

Hypochondria story. In ancient times it referred to an area beneath or hipo the rib cartilage, or condria, and was a digestive disorder of the liver spleen nervous gallbladder. Centuries later the same hypochondria was used to describe a melancholy disorder marked by indigestion and stomach ailments that were hard to pinpoint.

How much does a breast weigh? A kilo? Half? More? Was one breast always heavier and more cantankerous than the other? And how much did its tumor weigh? What was it made of? The same stuff, of course. Fat, skin, some glands with first and last names. Areolas. Nipples. Lactiferous ducts. Cells identical to themselves multiplying their effort to destroy her.

The imagery of our body’s decay never stops. It keeps going. For 230 pages. Ella’s sickness then morphs into El getting sick, then for some reason Ella’s father. I had to take breaks not to diagnose myself with cancer. We are taken through brief memories of life before sickness, then long sequences of the sickness itself, a rape, falling in love, some random threats of violence from El, a teenage molestation—all in no particular order and for a point I clearly didn’t get. Nothing is close to resolved, but then in fairness to the writer, what in life ever is? I wondered if the novel was a brain shuffling through a kaleidoscope of memories on the brink of death. The problem is it was all so bitter and desultory, I just didn’t want to be there. I found myself hoping everyone’s misery (and also mine) would finally just end.

Maybe these works are more prose poetry than novel. I could pick one up, read an exquisite passage, then set it down totally satisfied. Their structure reminded me of one of my favorite books of all time, Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, in which a genius muses about what it is to be human. I may have fallen in love with Pessoa because I knew how to read him—each passage is a finished work, there to be savored and then put away; I knew I wasn’t following a narrative. Both of these authors could share a stage with Pessoa, though Lockwood’s presence would be a hell of a lot more fun.

TODAY’S WINNER: No One Is Talking About This

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Match Commentary

By Ursula McTaggart & Meave Gallagher

Meave Gallagher (she/her): Today it is my honor and pleasure to share the commentary booth with Ursula McTaggart. Ursula, please tell the people about yourself.

Ursula McTaggart (she/her): I am a professor of English at Wilmington College, a small Quaker school in rural Ohio. I teach American literature, and I particularly love new books and radical books! I am drawn toward literature that helps conceive of or guide readers to participate in social change—in other words, I love books that interact with the world and try to make it better. I’m also a college basketball fan (University of Michigan and Indiana University), so March Madness is one of my favorite times of year. And I have been following the Tournament of Books for the better part of a decade as a way to mix those two hobbies. I typically read about five of the books before March rolls around, and I often pick a couple ToB books to teach in my Contemporary American Literature class, rotating each year.

Meave: Just a minute, I need to pause and reflect on this: ToB picks are coinciding with college syllabi? Any in particular?

Ursula: Students have connected with Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Kayla Rae Whitaker’s The Animators, and Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous from past Tournaments, to name just a few. One class even FaceTimed with Kayla Rae Whitaker, who so graciously responded to one of our tweets about The Animators.

I love the way that brand-new literature allows me—and my students—to see art as a living creation that is interacting with our current cultural and political moment. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a cup of tea and some Henry James, but reading something published by artists who have lived through and are responding to current events—pandemic, global warming, the Trump era, etc.—is also a fundamentally important social experience.

Meave: I fully agree with you! I just love the plurality of voices and experiences you can find under the label “American.” OK, maybe let’s defy our judge and start out easy: Have you read this pair of books?

Ursula: I read both of these books—in fact, this year, I made it through all 18 because I was so excited to be a commentator!

Meave: That is true dedication. What are your first impressions of the decision?

Ursula: My gut reaction is that this is the right decision. Perhaps unlike Judge Dourif, I adore experimental, jazzy literature, and I think I loved these books more deeply than she did. I came in with a bias toward Lockwood. Like Dourif, I am won over by her wit and humor. Her memoir, Priestdaddy, made me laugh out loud at 3 a.m. when I couldn’t sleep in the weeks immediately following my spouse’s “Surprise! We’re getting a divorce!” announcement. Those were not moments of great humor in my life.

Meave: No, I imagine not. I’ll bet everyone here has at least one book that gave them some relief during a difficult time.

Ursula: My respect for Lockwood’s genius runs deep. I follow her on Twitter, obsess over her latest and funniest book reviews (Updike, Knausgaard), and know her cats and husband by name from social media. So although I don’t have a technical conflict of interest, it’s hard to convince me to vote against Lockwood. She has my heart.

Meave: Ursula, you absolute stan. Though her review of The Morning Star was really something.

Ursula: That said, Meruane won me over entirely. I was captivated by Nervous System and in awe of Meruane’s metaphorically rich examination of bodies both planetary and human and the gravitational forces that pull them together, keep them apart, or tear them to pieces in black holes. Likewise, while Judge Dourif rightly notes the El and Ella as Spanish words for “he” and “she,” I also felt the electric currents running through those names and through the rest of the text—electricity that animates and energizes the characters’ relationships while also making them dangerous. I think Dourif’s judgment and frustration are both justified. Ultimately, I concur with the final judgment but feel much more enthusiasm for the texts themselves.

Meave: Dangerous! I did not get that impression of Nervous System at all from the judgment. At first, I was like, “Yes, give me that visceral, incisive critique,” which is what I think Judge Dourif has done here; I can easily imagine putting the book down to self-diagnose every time a character mentions another symptom. Now, do you suppose that’s a testament to Nervous System’s effectiveness, or, as the judge seems to be describing it, the novel’s relentless focus on “the imagery of our body’s decay?” I know nothing about the ToB is fair, but it feels unfair to pit a book with so much laughter against one with so little. It seems like the only thing the judge finds these two novels have in common is their resemblance to prose poems.

Ursula: I can see how you interpret Judge Dourif as privileging humor over seriousness. That’s a bit funny, in and of itself, considering that No One Is Talking About This is primarily a tragic story of a child’s death and a family’s joy at her life and devastation at her loss. That is a testament to the book and I think what Dourif is pointing to—Lockwood has a rarified talent, not only to bring humor to even the darkest situations (and not in a dismissive way), but to create insight in a compelling poetic way.

Meave: I’m with you. Can you explain a bit more?

Ursula: Lockwood describes the neurologist who delivers the narrator’s sister bad news about her baby’s brain development as having skin “the gentle green cast of a Madonna balanced on a single fish-shaped foot in a grotto…Compositionally, she appeared to be made of 14 percent classical music, the kind you were supposed to listen to while you were studying.” Later, the narrator “began to read the baby Marlon Brando’s Wikipedia entry,” concluding that “everyone should get to know about Marlon Brando: how he looked like a wet knife in a T-shirt, the cotton ball in each cheek when he talked, rumors of him wearing diapers on the set of Apocalypse Now.” In these moments, we see the intersection of Lockwood’s humorous self and her poetic self. Lockwood has become a novelist and Twitter aficionado, but before that she was a poet, and she writes like a poet. That, I think, is what Judge Dourif is responding to more than the humor itself.

Meave: The judge does talk about both books reminding her more of prose poetry than regular old novels, so that fits.

Ursula: It’s also perhaps what Dourif felt disoriented by. She (fairly) wanted a coherent narrative, and both of these authors are more interested in poetic association and metaphor than they are in realist literary narrative. Dourif’s hypochondriacal reaction to reading Nervous System (anxiety is even in the title) was exactly the novel’s point, I think, and I find that kind of reading experience both excruciating and urgently compelling. It’s like sinking into someone else’s emotional morass and feeling it physically as you read, but being able to emerge as you put the book down.

Meave: And then you’ve got to emerge from your search morass as well.


Ursula: I have had that kind of feeling with writers like Elena Ferrante or Jenny Offill, and Meruane evoked that in me (as did Lockwood, in the second section of the novel). The fact that No One Is Talking About This could combine that with wit and humor is a bizarre paradox of Lockwood that lifts her outside of the literary norm—and to me, that’s why she continues to come out on top. Though even as I say that, I don’t want to diminish the beauty and depth of Meruane’s text.

Meave: Someone’s got to stick up for poor old Nervous System! Speaking of, if you’re willing to take a little detour, there’s something I’m curious about: In so many of the reviews of Nervous System—in the New York Times, the Chicago Review of Books, Kirkus, the Times Literary Supplement, even the publisher’s description—there’s been at least mention of the concept of the characters’ sicknesses being tied to their traumas being tied to their history, if not explicitly stating that El is a forensic scientist working with the bones of the disappeared, the desaparecidos. So I’m wondering why you think Judge Dourif didn’t bring up this part of the story in the judgment. Was the cause of any character’s illness overshadowed by the judge’s feeling of drudgery reading about those illness’ symptoms?

Ursula: Nervous System is a novel about love, loss, abuse, illness, immigration, and excavation of the dead, both literal and metaphorical. The illnesses at the center of the text are both familial and societal. Meruane herself is Chilean, and the narrator speaks of a “home country” and a “city of the present,” each having its own language. The language of home is Spanish, as evidenced by her interactions with her father, and the “city of the present” speaks another language. The bones in the mass graves that Ella’s boyfriend, El, excavates and memorializes are not those of the oppressed in the home country. They are those of the migrants who came to the new country.

Meave: That’s a different flavor of horrific, isn’t it. Brings it closer to home to us here.

Ursula: The old country was diseased with dictatorship; the new one has an excavation site to uncover mass graves. “While they poke around in her blood and find out what’s causing that damage in her vertebrae, another piece of her nervous system will flare up,” Ella notes. Her mysteriously damaged spinal cord radiates out to her body—and to her family and students. Political violence seems to spread similarly, in Meruane’s text. This layer of her novel, however, is certainly hard for the reader to follow, and Dourif is fair to criticize Meruane’s attempts at universality that perhaps become overly vague.

Meave: Dourif says at one point that she “wondered if the novel is a brain shuffling through a kaleidoscope of memories on the brink of death.”

Ursula: Meruane wants us to see universality in political violence, maybe, but not knowing which country Ella grew up in and migrated to dulls the political commentary. I found myself presuming Ella now lived in the United States and had grown up in Chile—and then I felt uncertain about where and when the mass graves were being excavated.

Meave: Are you familiar with Judge Dourif’s beloved The Book of Disquiet? It’s an interesting observation, that, like her favorite book, both of these novels might be better consumed like segments of an orange. When I’m overwhelmed by a book, I either put it aside (usually forever) or plow through, see how I feel at the end, read some reviews, realize I missed like half the plot, and return to it more slowly.

Ursula: I have never read The Book of Disquiet, though I appreciated Dourif’s approach to reading experimental texts or those with less of a realist narrative. I can understand the impetus to consume them piecemeal and to be satisfied with the small but beautiful (or funny) observations they offer. Lockwood’s obsession with Twitter, both in her own life and in that of her narrator, literally calls out for this approach.

Meave: “Bite size” but not “fun size” with these two books. So how do you deal with a novel that overwhelms you?

Ursula: In my own reading experience, difficult texts are best read collectively. I’m a teacher, after all! A classroom or book club or even a text chain with a friend or your mother (my mother, in particular) is my best outlet for making meaning from challenging texts.

Meave: My dad has been annoyed at me for not finishing a book I promised to read in December. And I’m going to copy and paste those last two sentences into my book club’s group chat immediately.

Ursula: With Nervous System, I’ve had multiple conversations with my mom about the facts: “Where did you think Ella lived and moved to?” “What do you make of the political referents with the mass grave?” We’re both good readers and didn’t have firm answers, but the collective brain always strikes me as better than the individual one. It’s difficult to read Toni Morrison’s Jazz, for instance, which came to my mind after reading Dourif’s judgment, without help. That help might be a roomful of people, a database full of critics, or your own patient and persistent rereadings.

I think Nervous System deserves a read and a reread.

Meave: I think it’s time for the Big Question: Who’s your favorite to go all the way?

Ursula: Who’s my favorite to win? Ooh, this is a hard one. Shoutouts to Greenidge and Shteyngart first, because I can’t fail to mention how much I loved Libertie and Our Country Friends. But I think my two favorite books of the Tournament are Percival Everett’s The Trees and Lauren Groff’s Matrix. Everett’s style shares much with Lockwood’s. He knows how to make you laugh your way through difficult subjects. I’ve read and loved Everett’s work before, but I wouldn’t have read The Trees so quickly if it weren’t for the ToB, simply because I read the blurb and felt like it wasn’t a “fun reading” book for my spare time—the emotional weight of Emmett Till and the legacy of lynching seemed like something I might save for teaching prep. But Everett also made me laugh out loud, regularly. I even read passages to my kids and tried to explain to them that it was a book about racist violence that also happened to be hilarious. There is nothing funny about the racist violence itself, but Everett’s characters and scenes are quirky and funny even as they deliver a difficult political message. Obviously I enjoy this mix of the silly and the serious.

Meave: The Trees does a lot in a little book, that’s for sure.

Ursula: My other favorite was Matrix, for entirely different reasons. I didn’t find Matrix to be a page-turner, though I know that one of my colleagues stayed up all night because she couldn’t put it down. It moved slowly for me, but I was awed by Groff’s intricately constructed medieval world around her fictional vision of Marie de France. It felt like she shone light into a space I hadn’t been able to adequately imagine.

Meave: Ursula, thank you so very much for your insights, your close reading, your patience, and your willingness to really dig into this judgment. Which was a fun judgment to dig into, and I appreciate it even more after discussing it with you. Is there anywhere people can find you?

Ursula: I’m @umctagga on Twitter and would love more literary followers, though I must admit I’m more of a follower than a poster. I often show my classes the Tournament of Books as a place to find good new books to read—it’s much more appealing to them than the New York Times Book Review. I love that they can see lively and lighthearted commentary about new books in this venue.

Meave: The Youth prefer the ToB to the Times Book Review? Someone should make us some buttons! Thanks again, Ursula. Now I’m going to turn it over to Kevin, with the news you’ve all been waiting for: our final Zombie announcement. Kevin?

Kevin Guilfoile (he/him): So, for the final time this year, we check the Zombie tally, this time to see if Nervous System has enough support to revive it, and we see that it does not. Both our Zombies in this year’s ToB will be heavyweights: Tomorrow, The Trees will face off against a newly kinetic Klara and the Sun. Then, on Wednesday, No One Is Talking About This will meet a cursed mummy Matrix. I suggest all of these authors start googling, “How long do roosters live?”


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